Wildfires up, air quality down: Is your health at risk?

SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah -- Wildfires burning around the state are starting to take a toll on our air quality, creating short and long-term health concerns for residents.

When wildfires spark up, air quality goes down.

“The air quality is better inside right now than it is outside,” Dr. Nathan Dean, the section chief of pulmonary care medicine at Intermountain Medical Center said.

If you look outside, you can smell it and you can definitely see it.

“The smoke from those comes into the Salt Lake Valley,” Dean said.

“Wildfires, it’s a different type of impact,” Donna Camp Spangler with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said. “It’s that soot.”

The fires cause what's known as particulate matter, or PM 2.5; a type of pollution that commonly comes from factories and cars.

“Those particular particles actually stick right in the lungs,” Dean said.

Based on the DEQ’s air monitoring system, most of the state saw concerning PM 2.5 levels on and off throughout the day Friday.

Some areas experienced a yellow or orange level, meaning the air's dangerous for certain groups of people.

“The elderly, the very young and those with underlying conditions are more susceptible,” Dean said.

For everyone else, a red level day would give reason for concern, meaning the air is dangerous for everyone.

Air quality levels can change throughout the day, but doctors note, it doesn’t have to be a red level day for it to be harmful to your average person.

“It is bad, it’s probably even worse than we think,” Dean said referring to the impact even moderate levels of PM 2.5 can have on people.

Short term, it can cause the average person a burning sensation, discomfort and coughing.

“Even without those visible things, over time there’s increased lung cancer related to air pollution and other changes to the air ways,” Dean said.

Bottom line, “It’s not safe,” he added.

To make matters worse, in Utah, we’re already exposed to this particle pollution all winter long thanks to inversion.

“Today is equal to our bad inversion in terms of our particulate matter,” Dean said.

However, when wildfires are the source it’s different, even worse.

“In the wintertime you can get out of the particulate pollution by driving up into the mountains, but pollution from wildfires you can’t get away from it."

According to Dean, the best way to protect your health on a poor air quality day is to stay inside.

You can check current air quality conditions throughout the state by clicking here.